Warbirds decorate skies at Gillespie Field

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As parts of the Midwest suffered spring blizzard conditions, the sky above Gillespie Field was a brilliant blue, making it a near perfect background for the flights of two World War II aircraft. 

As parts of the Midwest suffered spring blizzard conditions, the sky above Gillespie Field was a brilliant blue, making it a near perfect background for the flights of two World War II aircraft. 

The west ramp of the airfield, off North Marshall Street, was filled with a variety of aircraft, automobile displays and vendors for the annual Warbird Expo. The unique event was put on by on by Air Group 1, the San Diego Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, a nationwide organization with an objective “to acquire, restore and preserve in flying condition a complete collection of combat aircraft which were flown by all military services of the United States and selected aircraft of other nations for the education and enjoyment of present and future generations of Americans,” according to its website.

Wing Leader Doug English said the expo plays a big part in funding continuing education.

“To support our education programs and keep the World War II aircraft flying, we have fundraisers like this throughout the year,” he said. 

English emphasized that all the funds remain local for their programs. For example, their education program supports the Air Force ROTC Program at San Diego State University. 

Prior to establishing the mentoring program, English said “the cadets had a 30 percent plus failure rate when they went to initial flight screening.  Since our guys have been mentoring them with [flight] simulator time and ground instruction, that has gone to zero percent failure.

Among those enjoying the day were Mike Naylor, son Michael and daughter Faith.

“They love the airplanes,” Naylor said. Right on cue, Faith showed her excitement as a SNJ-5 flight trainer started up right in front of us, and then began to taxi down the flight line. 

The SNJ-5 was the top advanced flight trainer used during World War II and Air Group 1 has a restored aircraft nicknamed “Sassy,” which is available for hire-for-rides. And that is exactly what Alan Branch did.

Self-described aviation enthusiasts, Alan and Joanne Branch said they were thoroughly enjoying the event. After landing from his flight in “Sassy,” Branch said, “I flew on Sassy for an hour a couple of years ago and wanted to do it again. It a fun riding plane and it helps out the [Commemorative] Air Force keep those warbirds alive. [We] can’t let them sit around and rot away.” 

Branch said he has flown in other aircraft, such as the Memphis Belle B-17F Flying Fortress during one of the previous Wings Over Gillespie airshows. 

“That was so neat to ride on that plane,” he said. “Imagine being like 20-years-old sitting on that plane in the cold, flying over the North Atlantic.” 

He has also flown in a P-51 Mustang fighter, like the one at this days event, as an anniversary bucket list gift from his wife. 

While Branch was one of the few taking demonstration flights, there were plenty of folks watching as the SNJ-5 and P-51 took off, flew over the airfield and surrounding area, and landed.  Against the backdrop of multiple aircraft parked on the ramp, vendors, and displays, it was an event made for aviation enthusiasts.

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